National runner-up SDSU ‘on a new journey’

LAS VEGAS — Not that San Diego State needed any reminders of the Montezuma Mesa Miracle, but video of Lamont Butler‘s buzzer-beater to send the Aztecs to the national title game last April is on constant loop in their gym.

Just in case.

“That one,” said Aztecs senior guard Darrion Trammell, whose last-second free throw a week earlier sent San Diego State to the Final Four, “we’ll never forget.

“I see it all the time. We walk by the screen, and we always see the shot again and it’s just, the emotions. You can just feel it. So, it is great to have those memories that always come back up because it’s also motivating because it means, ultimately, there’s no limitations to where we can go.”

San Diego State has long been the hunted in the Mountain West, where the Aztecs were again named the preseason favorites at the conference’s media day at Resorts World Las Vegas. But the Aztecs, who finished 32-7 last season, now have an even larger target on them on a national scale after falling 76-59 to Connecticut in the title game, and their mindset is on display.

“I mean, you walk the fine line,” said sixth-year coach Brian Dutcher, who came to San Diego State in 1999 with Steve Fisher after working for him at Michigan. “We want to embrace what we did — playing for a national championship is incredible, but you still fall short of the goal.

“I’ve said, especially during the talk about realignment, that I don’t care what league we’re in: We are a Power 5 school. I think a trip to the national championship game has elevated it and everybody knows San Diego State is a national program. So, we have to continue to build that narrative and then back it up with our play.”

Defense has long been the Aztecs’ calling card, as they were 22-0 last season when they allowed 65 or fewer points. Entering the Final Four, they gave up an average of 57.2 points in their previous five games.

New Mexico guard Jamal Mashburn, Jr. watched last spring with mixed feelings as rival San Diego State, a No. 5 seed, marched to the final with wins over No. 12 Charleston, No. 13 Furman, No. 1 Alabama, No. 6 Creighton and No. 9 Florida Atlantic, while the three other Mountain West teams to receive bids all lost their opening games in Utah State, Boise State and Nevada.

“Just watching the whole tournament develop, it was bittersweet,” said Mashburn, who was named to the preseason all-conference team. “Bittersweet, definitely. Because we did beat them at their place and they gave us a run for our money at our place, but we definitely competed with them, for sure. But it was bittersweet.

“But I enjoy watching basketball. It was good basketball to watch. I mean, a guy like Lamont Butler being able to have a run like he did, to hit a shot that he did, just to put his career where it needs to be, I just love seeing good things. But I’d much rather it be us on that other end. But our time’s coming. Our time’s coming.”

It’s rarefied air for San Diego State, which, in winning five NCAA tournament games last spring, nearly matched the six total Big Dance wins it had in its history. A star-crossed program whose likely best team, the 2019-20 squad was 30-2, saw the NCAA tournament canceled due to the pandemic. A quizzical program that has late baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn as its all-time assists leader.

And that’s just fine with these Aztecs, who have two starters — Trammell and Butler, who was also named preseason all-conference — among their four returnees, plus Mountain West preseason newcomer of the year Reese Waters, a transfer from USC.

“Sometimes, it does feel like a dream,” said Butler, whose jumper from the right wing as time expired beat Florida Atlantic, 72-71, in the national semifinals. “It just feels like it was all a blur. Everything happened so quick. But once we look back on it, we see how much fun we had, the mind we had as a team and the things that got us to the championship — camaraderie, chemistry, selflessness. So it was really fun to be in that moment and now we’re on to the next … we’re here to embark on a new journey.

“Last year what we did was remarkable, something that we’ve always dreamed of, so the target’s even bigger, more recognition from the whole world. Teams that we play throughout the year, they’re going to be gunning for us and that’s what we’ve got to be ready for. And I think we will be.”

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